Vietnam to Afghanistan: What does it take?

I started this post because I was curious about how the number of deaths in the wars I can remember compared. I remember the morning news reporting weekly American deaths in Vietnam reaching into the hundreds and I know, thankfully, mortality rates have been lower in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When comparing the monthly death counts of Afghanistan and Vietnam I found myself wondering if the degree of carnage in Vietnam accelerated our eventual exit. Are Americans complacent towards Afghanistan because there are “only” scores of deaths each month instead of the thousands seen in Vietnam? Is that what it takes? Did we learn nothing from that experience that can be applied to our current involvement in Afghanistan? How would our policy in Afghanistan be different if there were 500 deaths last week and there was a draft that put all families in jeopardy of losing a family member? Somehow I think we would have left Afghanistan many years and lives ago.

The impetuous for this posting was a quantitative comparison and so let me dispatch that objective with the following two charts. The first one shows the deaths per month for Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The deaths in Vietnam dwarf those in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This is sobering and apparent in the second chart that compares the total deaths (to date) in Iraq and Afghanistan ( with a three month period in 1968 in Vietnam. Does it take that level of loss to force Americans to seriously ask if the likely outcome of a conflict is sufficient to justify that loss?

Monthly deaths in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan
Sometimes numbers can increase our awareness and sometimes they insulate us from the reality. The data to create the Vietnam chart is from The National Archives ( and is a massive file with over 58,000 records.( The fact that the file has the deceased’s name and marital status makes it more than just a sterile spreadsheet of numbers. It would require the emotional capacity of a reptile to look through that file and not be impacted by the realization that there are lives behind each and every data point.

Yes, the numbers do speak for themselves but they do not convey the message that was captured so well by Ernie Pyle in a column that was never finished. There is a difference between numbers and actually confronting mortality. The following draft column was found in his pocket on April 18, 1945, after he was killed by a Japanese machine-gunner on the island of Ie Shima

On Victory in Europe:

And so it is over. The catastrophe on one side of the world has run its course. The day that it had so long seemed would never come has come at last.

I suppose emotions here in the Pacific are the same as they were among the Allies all over the world. First a shouting of the good news with such joyous surprise that you would think the shouter himself had brought it about. And then an unspoken sense of gigantic relief — and then a hope that the collapse in Europe would hasten the end in the Pacific.

It has been seven months since I heard my last shot in the European war. Now I am as far away from it as it is possible to get on this globe. This is written on a little ship laying off the coast of the Island of Okinawa, just south of Japan, on the other side of the world from Ardennes. But my heart is still in Europe, and that’s why I am writing this column.

It is to the boys who were my friends for so long. My one regret of the war is that I was not with them when it ended. For the companionship of two-and-a-half years of death and misery is a spouse that tolerates no divorce. Such companionship finally becomes a part of one’s soul, and it cannot be obliterated.

True, I am with American boys in the other war not yet ended, but I am old-fashioned and my sentiment runs to old things. To me the European war is old, and the Pacific war is new.

Last summer I wrote that I hoped the end of the war could be a gigantic relief, but not an elation. In the joyousness of high spirits it is easy for us to forget the dead. Those who are gone would not wish themselves to be a millstone of gloom around our necks.

But there are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world.

Dead men by mass production — in one country after another — month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.

Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.

Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.

These are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn’t come back. You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.

We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That’s the difference…


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